Two bungled operations against the Red Shirt protesters in less than a week may point to a split in Thailand’s military that has stymied Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government, analysts say.
The failed actions — an attempted crackdown last weekend, which killed at least 18 civilians and five soldiers, and a botched arrest of Red Shirt leaders on Friday — came after the administration promised to instill order in the capital.
“This puts the government in a very difficult position. They can never really be sure that their orders will truly be implemented,” said Michael Nelson, of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
When the security forces attempted to sweep the Red Shirts out of Bangkok’s historic district last weekend, they suffered a humiliating retreat. Both sides accused the other of using assault rifles in the clash and media images also emerged of mysterious black-clad gunmen in the thick of the mayhem.
Abhisit promised a full investigation, blaming “terrorists,” while some spoke of a “third hand” who targeted commanding army officers.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said, however, that it was likely that some disgruntled commanders had begun to back the Red Shirt protests.
“I have heard from my inner sources that there’s a split in the military, that some of the military men have defected to the Red [Shirt] camp,” he said.
The army draws most of its lower ranks from poor areas sympathetic to protesters, he added, and police are known to be fans of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former policeman, whose ousting as prime minister triggered the first Red Shirt demonstrations.
While the military appeared to fully turn against Thaksin several years ago, there is now talk of “watermelon” soldiers — green outside, red inside — who have come to support the movement backed by the fugitive leader.
Anthony Davis, analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly, said he believed some Red Shirts had organized a “military wing” after their similar demonstrations last year failed to unseat Abhisit’s government and they were swept from the streets.
“You’ve got a very worrying convergence of elements of Red Shirts who have military training, some of them doubtless former Rangers [border guards],” Davis said. “Then there’s current military, the so-called watermelons, willing to feed intelligence and very probably munitions.”
The second dramatic failure occurred on Friday when commandos stormed a Bangkok hotel where leaders of the Red Shirt protest movement were hiding and the suspects managed to escape. One leading Red Shirt climbed down an electric cable from the third floor of the hotel in Bangkok’s northern outskirts, before being rushed away by jubilant supporters, despite the presence of dozens of riot police nearby.
“It’s a very difficult position for the government and of course it puts the Red Shirts in a good position because they obviously have informants,” Nelson said.
In response to the bungling, Abhisit made army chief Anupong Paojinda head of security operations in the capital. The military also announced it was planning to disperse the thousands of Red Shirts, but had not decided the timing.
Analysts said the move was one of Abhisit’s few remaining options as he attempts to cling to power.
“In a way, it allows Abhisit to test the military, [but] when you a let military control a situation it hardly ever ends nicely and peacefully. There’s a possibility it might turn nasty,” Pavin said.
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